Democracy in chains

In the 2004 presidential race, the GOP ran a massive, multi-state, multimillion-dollar operation to challenge the legitimacy of black, Hispanic and Native American voters. The methods used breached the Voting Rights Act, and while the Bush administration’s civil rights division grinned and looked the other way, civil rights lawyers began circling, preparing to sue to stop the violations of the act before the 2008 race.

So Republicans have promised to no longer break the law – not by going legit but by eliminating the law.

The act was passed in 1965 after the Ku Klux Klan and other upright citizens found they could use procedural tricks – "literacy tests", poll taxes and more – to block citizens of colour from casting ballots.

Here is what happened in 2004, and what’s in store for 2008.

In the 2004 election, more than 3 million voters were challenged at the polls. No one had seen anything like it since the era of Jim Crow and burning crosses. In 2004, voters were told their registrations had been purged or that their addresses were "suspect".

Denied the right to the regular voting booths, these challenged voters were given "provisional" ballots. More than 1m of these provisional ballots (1,090,729 of them) were tossed in the electoral dumpster uncounted.

A funny thing about those ballots: about 88% were cast by minority voters.

This isn’t a number dropped on me from a black helicopter: they come from the raw data of the US election assistance commission in Washington DC.

At the heart of the GOP’s mass challenge of voters was what the party’s top brass called "caging lists" – secret files of hundreds of thousands of voters, almost every one from a black-majority voting precinct.

When our investigations team, working for BBC TV, got our hands on these confidential files in October 2004, the Republicans told us the voters listed were their potential "donors". Really? The sheets included pages of men from homeless shelters in Florida.

Donor lists, my ass. Every expert told us, these were "challenge lists" meant to stop these black voters from casting ballots.

When these "caged" voters arrived at the polls in November 2004, they found their registrations missing, their right to vote blocked or their absentee ballots rejected because their addresses were supposedly "fraudulent".

Why didn’t the GOP honchos fess up to challenging these allegedly illegal voters? Because targeting voters of colour is against the law. The law in question is the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The act says you can’t go after groups of voters if you choose your targets based on race. Given that almost all the voters on the GOP hit list are black, the illegal racial profiling is beyond even Karl Rove’s ability to come up with an alibi.

The Republicans target black folk not because they don’t like the colour of their skin; they don’t like the colour of their vote: Democrat. For that reason, the GOP included on its hit list Jewish retirement homes in Florida. Apparently, the GOP was also gunning for the Elderly of Zion.

These so-called "fraudulent" voters, in fact, were not fraudulent at all. Page after page, as we have previously reported, are black soldiers sent overseas. The Bush campaign used their absence from their US homes to accuse them of voting from false addresses.

Now that the GOP has been caught breaking the voting rights law, it has found a way to keep using its expensively obtained "caging" lists: let the law expire next year. If the Voting Rights Act dies in 2007, the 2008 race will be open season on dark-skinned voters. Only the renewal of the Voting Rights Act can prevent the planned racial wrecking of democracy.

Before the 2000 presidential ballot, then Jeb Bush purged thousands of Black citizens’ registrations on the grounds that they were "felons" not entitled to vote. Our review of the files determined that the crime of most people on the list was nothing more than VWB — Voting While Black.

That "felon scrub", as the state called it, had to be "pre-cleared" under the Voting Rights Act. That is, the US justice department must approve "scrubs" and other changes in procedures.

The Florida felon scrub slipped through this "pre-clearance" provision because Katherine Harris’s assistant assured the government the scrub was just a clerical matter. Civil rights lawyers are now on the alert for such mendacity.

The burning cross caucus of the Republican Party is bitching that "pre-clearance" of voting changes applies only to southern states. I have to agree that singling out the old confederacy is a bit unfair. But the solution is not to smother the voting rights law but to spread its safeguards to all 50 of these United States.

Republicans argue that the racial voting games and the threats of the white-hooded Klansmen that kept African-Americans from the ballot box before the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act no longer threaten black voters.

That’s true. When I look over the "caging lists" and the "scrub sheets", it’s clear to me that the GOP has traded in white sheets for spreadsheets.

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